Document Management In a Mobile World

Document management is a challenge facing every industry sector, no matter the unique set of circumstances and user demands. In today’s workforce, mobile capabilities are becoming less of an option, more of a requirement. Distributed teams and remote workers are increasingly common, and smartphones and tablets are now viewed as effective (sometimes indispensable) business tools. Businesses need to adapt to this brave, new, mobile world in every way, including in how they share and view electronic documents.

Implementing an electronic document viewing solution can address many business challenges, but deciding which one to use is often a challenge in itself. There are many options when looking at document viewers, including Adobe Flash-based viewers, Adobe Acrobat solutions and browser-based viewers. Choosing the best option depends on the specific needs of the company, the industry and the audience. Let’s take a moment to discuss the pros and cons of what’s out there:

  • Adobe Flash Viewers: Flash viewers offer a rich interactive experience for users, but this benefit is mitigated by the fact that they require the client to download and install the application. Additionally, Adobe Flash has never been supported on Apple’s iOS platform and is typically not supported on Android as well. Of course, this limitation may not matter for corporate users that have standardized on Windows. However, for Apple device users, Flash viewers’ lack of iOS and Android support makes them an unrealistic option.
  • Adobe Acrobat: Acrobat is a versatile document format that can handle multiple document types. To properly utilize this product in the web-enabled corporate server scenario, however, processing has to be performed on back-end servers to convert or merge multiple documents into the PDF format. However, for many documents, users must have updated versions of Adobe Acrobat installed on their systems in order to view most documents. This can be a problem if many users are using older computers.
  • Browser-based Viewers: A pure HTML5 document viewer with back-end document conversion technology allows users to access virtually any document or image—regardless of format—from any platform, all without requiring a download or client installation. All a user needs is a connection to the internet and a web browser. Minor or zero support is required because users can access a browser on the device or platform of their choosing (PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone, etc.).

Given the mobile nature of today’s businesses and their audiences, a web-based viewer quickly emerges as the solution best suited to meet their needs. However, it’s not as easy as just finding any HTML5 document viewer. In order to function on any device and provide sophisticated capabilities for users, a viewer must be augmented with additional server-based technologies to become a truly powerful viewing solution.

So what are the restrictions of a web-based browser, and how can developers overcome them with additional technologies?

  • Browser Compatibility

According to a 2011 Forrester report, 60% of organizations still run Windows XP. Within this group of users operating on Windows XP, millions are also still using older versions of Internet Explorer (6, 7, and 8). These older browsers use variants of either HTML4 or XHTML1.0 and don’t include the special capabilities defined in HTML5. While Forrester didn’t survey consumer usage, we can expect that this legacy operating system is also prevalent among some customers or other external parties that might want to use an HTML5 document viewer.

It’s not realistic to expect users to upgrade their operating systems or browsers to allow for better document viewing, and this is certainly an area over which companies have no control for their non-employee users. Fortunately, it is possible for web-based document viewing technology to include special coding to overcome the compatibility issues of legacy versions of Internet Explorer. Special coding written in JavaScript and some specific Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) files can solve the compatibility issues of the older browser formats. Once a HTML5 viewer has been supplemented with this special code, users operating on these older browsers can enjoy the rich function and display features associated with the technology.

  • Limited File Support

There is no required or suggested list of file formats prescribed by the HTML standard and the language does not natively support any format. Rather, individual browsers are responsible for rendering and supporting whatever image formats users might want to download. While most browsers can support JPEG, PNG, BMP and GIF files, a plug-in or conversion to these formats on the server side is required to support other file types and formats.

To address this issue, viewers need a content conversion server to expand file support. These can be written to support numerous platforms and applications, including Java and .NET, enabling a variety of popular file formats—TIFFs, PDFs, and Word documents, for example—to be automatically retrieved and converted into an image that will display in the browser.

  • Standalone Functionality

On its own, HTML5 doesn’t automatically provide the sophisticated capabilities required for functions such as annotations, search or thumbnails. As a result, in order to offer these capabilities, web-based viewers must be supplemented with additional technologies:

  • JavaScript (open source client-side scripting language): JavaScript is the client-side scripting language used primarily in webpage creation and rendering for enhanced user interfaces and dynamic websites. Almost everything in a document viewer requires Javascript code for implementation.
  • CSS (Cascading Style Sheets): CSS is how the layout of a web page is described in a browser. Developers can use different sets of CSS rules for different webpages, as well as different platforms (desktop, tablet, mobile). Including some specific CSS files is what allows the document viewer to display properly in IE 6-8.
  • AJAX (asynchronous JavaScript and XML): AJAX is a programming paradigm that refers to a set of advanced browser technologies. AJAX allows for the retrieval and sending of data to a server without a page reload. With AJAX technology, the document viewer operates more quickly and more efficiently as it communicates with the content server, making for a better user experience. These AJAX calls and communications with the content server allow for the retrieval and saving of annotation and redaction changes within the document viewer.

Augmenting web-based viewers with the above technologies ensures that the viewing solution will seamlessly work across an organization and its user base. This is of particular importance in today’s mobile business world, given the diverse and distributed nature of the individuals and devices interacting with the systems. Once implemented, a HTML5 document viewer enables users to access critical information from any device or operating system. In addition, a sophisticated document viewer lays the foundation for supporting both new document types—electronic signatures captured via the mobile platform, for example—and older records digitized as part of a company’s modernization efforts. Every organization is unique and may have different requirements, but a web-based viewer provides these organizations with the ability to effectively and efficiently tackle all of their document viewing and processing demands.

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